I wanted to do some light reading, so I chose Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of A Fox-Hunting Man. Published in 1928, it deals with the author’s rustic pre-war life, and then his WorldWarOne experiences. It has little humor or suspense or thought. It has become a minor classic because of its tone and atmosphere. The tone is intimate, self-deprecating, nostalgic, and the prose is first-rate. It was well-received by the reading public, and won both the James Tait Black Prize and the Hawthornden Prize. Sassoon followed Fox-Hunting Man with two more volumes of fictionalized autobiography, Memoirs of An Infantry Officer and Sherston’s Progress.
Fox-Hunting Man is an un-bookish book: it rarely mentions anything intellectual, focusing instead on horses, fox-hunting, and cricket. It depicts small-town life and upper-class sports. One of the few books that Sassoon mentions is Edmund Gosse’s acclaimed memoir Father and Son. Gosse’s memoir probably influenced Sassoon; Gosse’s memoir is said to have “gentle wit,” and this is also true of Fox-Hunting Man. Sassoon knew Gosse personally — Gosse was close friends with Sassoon’s maternal uncle, the sculptor Hamo Thornycroft. When Sassoon started writing Fox-Hunting Man,
|he sent some manuscript pages to Gosse, who replied: “I think you will be anxious for a word from me, and so I write provisionally to say that I am delighted with it so far. There is no question at all that you must go on steadily. It will be an extraordinarily original book.”|
Sassoon was also influenced by Proust, and the nostalgic tone of his work is somewhat Proustian. I suspected the influence of Proust after reading the following passage, which deals with a wartime experience:
|We had some tea.... If I could taste that tea out of the dixies now I should write it all very much as it was. Living spontaneity would be revived by that tea, the taste of which cannot be recovered by any effort of memory.|
Proust is famous for emphasizing unconscious memory, the memory preserved by tastes and smells.
Memoirs of A Fox-Hunting Man reminds us how important hunting was, especially in the life of the upper classes. Sassoon and his cohorts don’t hunt once a month, or once a week; they hunt four or five times a week. In Central Europe, hunting was as popular as it was in England; the Archduke Franz Ferdinand kept records of his hunts, and counted 275,000 animals killed. The Romans were also very fond of hunting. A group hunt can be considered eminently “natural,” it has deep roots in human nature and human history. Our species engaged in group hunts for a million years or more. Of course, there’s something cruel about hunting in general, and fox-hunting in particular; Sassoon mentions this but doesn’t lose sleep over it.
When the war starts and death is near, Sassoon appreciates life more: “Never before had I known how much I had to lose. Never before had I looked at the living world with any degree of intensity.” He says that the war taught him “one useful lesson — that on the whole it was very nice to be alive at all.”
When Sassoon is sent to the front lines, he gains a reputation for wild courage, then becomes known as an anti-war protester. He writes “A Soldier’s Declaration,” in which he explains why he’s refusing to fight:
|I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow-soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them, and that, had this been done, the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation. I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust....|
Sassoon’s Declaration was read aloud in the House of Commons. Later, however, Sassoon feels guilty that others are fighting while he’s resting, so he returns to the Front, and is shot in the head by friendly fire (the wound wasn’t fatal, Sassoon survived the war and lived to be 80).
It was believed, Sassoon says, that young men should have courage. But what if their courage has no purpose? What if they’re dying for no reason? What if their courage is exploited? When Sassoon first joined the Army, he believed that
|the War was inevitable and justifiable. Courage remained a virtue. And that exploitation of courage, if I may be allowed to say a thing so obvious, was the essential tragedy of the War, which, as everyone now agrees, was a crime against humanity.|
When you’re fighting a war, do you have any moral obligations to your enemy? Are you obliged to be honest, kind, merciful toward your enemy? If your enemy violates moral principles, does that give you the right to do so? Should we say, “All’s fair in love and war”? The same questions arise in private life: if someone steals your wallet, do you have moral obligations to him?
Sassoon is known for his war poems, which depict the war with brutal realism. The following lines are from a poem called “Counter-Attack”:
The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs
High-booted, sprawled and grovelled along the saps
And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,
Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;
And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,
Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.
And then the rain began — the jolly old rain!
In an earlier issue, I discussed a CivilWar memoir that describes how the marching soldiers sometimes broke into song. Sassoon apparently witnessed something similar, and wrote a poem called “Everyone Sang”:
Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom,
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields; on — on — and out of sight.
Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted;
And beauty came like the setting sun:
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
In Fox-Hunting Man, Sassoon describes the underground life of the WorldWarOne soldier:
|Pushing past the gas-blanket, I blundered down the stairs to the company headquarters’ dug-out. There were twenty steps to that earthy smelling den, with its thick wooden props down the middle and its precarious yellow candlelight casting wobbling shadows. Barton was sitting on a box at the rough table, with a tin mug and a half-empty whisky bottle. His shoulders were hunched and the collar of his trench-coat was turned up to his ears. Dick was in deep shadow, lying on a bunk (made of wire-netting with empty sandbags on it). It was a morose cramped little scene, loathsome to live in as it is hateful to remember. The air was dank and musty; lumps of chalk fell from the “ceiling” at intervals. There was a bad smell of burnt grease.|
During the war, Sassoon became friends with the poets Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen. Owen’s war experience seems even grimmer than Sassoon’s:
|Outfitted in hip-length rubber waders, on 8 January [Owen] had waded through two and a half miles of trenches with “a mean depth of two feet of water.” By 9 January  he was housed in a hut where only seventy yards away a howitzer fired every minute day and night. On 12 January [they] marched three miles over a shelled road and three more along a flooded trench, where those who got stuck in the heavy mud had to leave their waders, as well as some clothing and equipment, and move ahead on bleeding and freezing feet. They were under machine-gun fire, shelled by heavy explosives throughout the cold march, and were almost unconscious from fatigue when the poison-gas attack occurred....1|
Memorial to WorldWarOne poets (including Sassoon, Graves, and Owen) in Westminster Abbey. The border is a quote from Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
The war doesn’t start until near the end of Fox-Hunting Man; most of the book deals with horses, horse races, and fox-hunting. The protagonist and narrator, who is called George Sherston, frequently buys new horses. One of these purchases involves an experience of déjà vu:
|The horse stood there as quiet as if he were having his picture painted. “I wish to goodness someone would give me fifty pounds for him,” exclaimed Lewison petulantly, and I had that queer sensation when an episode seems to have happened before. The whole scene was strangely lit up for me; I could have sworn that I knew what he was going to say before a single word was out of his mouth. And when, without a second’s hesitation, I replied, “I’ll give you fifty pounds for him,” I was merely overhearing a remark which I had already made.|
Psychologists like Freud have offered various explanations for the feeling of déjà vu. I would explain this feeling by saying that we often anticipate the future, and when something that we anticipated comes to pass, it feels that we already experienced it, we’ve been here before.1B
Sassoon has some family money, and this enables him to spend his time on sport and literature. His father’s family was one of the wealthiest Jewish families in the world. The Sassoons were based in Iraq and India, and controlled the opium trade with China; they were known as the Rothschilds of the East. Sassoon’s father was disinherited because he married a non-Jewish woman, so as a young man, Sassoon had to be somewhat careful with his expenditures — he was wealthy, but only moderately so.
In my book of aphorisms, I argue that boys who are raised primarily by their mother are more apt to become homosexual, and I cite Proust as an example. Sassoon is another example; his father left the family when Sassoon was five, and died soon after. (Sassoon’s fictional alter-ego, George Sherston, is raised by “Aunt Evelyn.”) Sassoon had numerous homosexual affairs, in addition to a wife and child. According to the critic Paul Fussell, one of Sassoon’s goals as a writer was “registering subtly and in the process justifying his homosexuality.” Sassoon seemed to long for a world where “creatures of my temperament” could lead a “free and unsecretive existence.”
Fox-Hunting Man contains no explicit comments on homosexuality, but Sassoon records his fondness for fellow-soldiers, especially Dick Tiltwood:
|I saw my new companion for the first time. He had unpacked and arranged his belongings, and was sitting on his camp-bed polishing a perfectly new pipe. He looked up at me. Twilight was falling and there was only one small window, but even in the half-light his face surprised me by its candour and freshness. He had the obvious good looks which go with fair hair and firm features, but it was the radiant integrity of his expression which astonished me.... His was the bright countenance of truth; ignorant and undoubting; incapable of concealment but strong in reticence and modesty. In fact, he was as good as gold, and everyone knew it as soon as they knew him. Such was Dick Tiltwood.|
Perhaps the hero of Sassoon’s 3-volume work is the psychiatrist who treated him, Dr. Rivers. Thirty years after this treatment, Sassoon wrote, “I should like to meet Rivers in ‘the next world.’ It is difficult to believe that such a man as he could be extinguished.”2
Bill James has become famous for his statistical analysis of baseball. James applied concepts from economics and statistics to baseball. His approach proved so fruitful that it spread to other sports, and one of his disciples (Nate Silver) has become the dean of political polls and political predictions.
Bill James shows how the insights of one field (economics) can throw light on a different field (baseball). Revolutionary thinkers often come from outside the field that they revolutionize. Wegener, for example, who discovered Continental Drift, wasn’t a geologist, and Schliemann, who discovered Troy, wasn’t an archaeologist. As the science-historian Thomas Kuhn wrote, “Almost always the men who achieve these fundamental inventions of a new paradigm have been either very young or very new to the field whose paradigm they change.”
When he began writing about baseball in the 1970s, Bill James was still in his twenties. He encountered resistance from the baseball establishment. Now, however, a new generation has grown up with James’ ideas, and his ideas are widely accepted. “Young people,” James says, “are more open to new ideas.”3 As the physicist Max Planck said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”
One might compare Bill James to Bernard Berenson, who changed how paintings are attributed. Berenson took a scholarly, systematic approach to painting-attribution. Like James, Berenson wasn’t alone, there were others who were working along the same lines, but Berenson was a leader in this new field.
Or one might compare Bill James to J. Thomas Looney, who revolutionized how people think about Shakespeare by taking a systematic approach to the question, “Who really wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare?”
Looking back on James’ career, it seems that he was in the right place at the right time, that baseball was ripe for close analysis, and that if James had never lived, someone else would have done something similar. And the same is true of Berenson and Looney: they were in the right place at the right time, someone was going to take the step they took.
James’ early work was done, not for money or position, but just for fun, just because he could. There’s an element of play in his work.
James is an iconoclast in his temperament as well as his ideas. His demeanor is somewhat morose; he rarely smiles, and rarely makes eye contact. One can’t picture him as a used-car salesman. He seems to feel that the natural relationship between human beings is hostility. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a touch of Asperger’s.
In one interview, James was asked about his childhood, and he dodged the question. When pressed, he said that he never knew a writer who had a happy childhood, implying that his childhood had been unhappy. In another interview, James said, “My father was a small-town school janitor. You know how the kids get treated,” implying that he was treated badly.
He grew up in a small town in Kansas, and he deplores the view that “nothing ever happens in small towns.” In one of his books, he describes this view as “bigotry directed at people who live in small towns... it’s an ignorant asshole comment, and if you ever say anything like that, you are revealing yourself to be an ignorant asshole.”4 Clearly James doesn’t aspire to be a writer of belles-lettres.
When James was young, his mind was shaped by newspapers and baseball cards. Reading newspapers fostered an interest in crime. James has written two books about crime. He recently published The Man From the Train, about a serial killer who struck remote houses in small towns around 1900; the killer was never caught or identified, but James thinks he has identified him.5
James notes that TV is preoccupied with crime — both true crime and fictional crime. He says that crime stories help us to understand our own dark side. He seems to reject the idea that crime stories can inspire crime.
James works for the RedSox organization. When he discusses the 2013 Red Sox, he’s overcome with emotion. That team won the World Series despite finishing last the previous year. Perhaps James believes that they became champions through character and determination, or through coping with the Boston Marathon Bombing, which occurred in April, 2013. At any rate, he can’t discuss their success without choking up.
How important are character and determination in the success of a baseball team? James thinks that this question, and many others, hasn’t yet been answered. He emphasizes not how much is known about baseball, but how much isn’t known. And he says that our knowledge of the world in general is also limited: “Ignorance is all around us,” James says, “we’re swimming in ignorance.” I’m reminded of Newton’s remark:
|I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.|
Acknowledging our ignorance is healthy, James argues, and being certain often leads to trouble. James quotes Bertrand Russell: “What philosophy should attack is not ignorance but certainty. Certainty protects ignorance. Certainty is the sword and shield of ignorance.”
James says that innocent people are sometimes punished for crimes they didn’t commit because prosecutors are certain, or the public is certain. “Certainty,” James says, “is the immediate cause of the most awful injustices in the world.”
Napoleon was treated by two doctors, Corvisart and Horeau. “Corvisart had many doubts,” Napoleon said, “and did not always answer my questions. Horeau was sure of everything and explained everything. The former was a learned physician, the latter an ignoramus.”6
We’re surrounded by ignorance, James says, but we strive for knowledge. The world is too complicated for the human mind to fathom, but we try to fathom it anyway. We construct religious and philosophical systems — in vain. “All the systems of understanding everything,” James says, “are just bullshit, none of them work.... No one understands the world.” He quotes the philosopher William James, who said that, instead of trying to answer the big questions, we should break them into smaller questions, questions that can be answered, then later we can build up to larger views.
James complains that political commentators often pretend to understand things, and often try to fit events into a larger theory. He likes C-SPAN because it gives the viewer raw information, rather than interpretation and theory.
Bill James studied baseball so closely that he reached deep universal questions. Perhaps a close study of any field of human endeavor eventually reaches universal questions.
James is currently writing a history of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
Bill James interviews/talks
Interview with Brian Lamb
Interview with Rob Neyer
Talk at Longwood University
Panel discussion about the book Moneyball, with Michael Lewis, John DePodesta, and Bill James
A. The life of a nation is a series of wars, the life of an individual a series of quarrels.
B. My theory of history says that the individual is a product of his time, the individual is molded by his society’s Zeitgeist, his society’s life-instinct or death-instinct. Society is an organism. Take Shakespeare, for example. We can’t conceive of Shakespeare in any other time; he’s molded by his time, and he expresses his time.
My theory of history is consistent with modern physics, especially quantum physics. Heisenberg said, “There is a fundamental error in separating the parts from the whole, the mistake of atomizing what should not be atomized. Unity and complementarity constitute reality.” What Heisenberg says about particles and atoms is what I say about individuals and societies. My theory of history is a step toward a larger theory, a theory of the universe.
C. Trust is the life-blood of society. He who betrays trust strikes at the heart of society.
Another hoax in academia: three scholars decided to write twenty papers with “politically fashionable conclusions.” Four of the papers were published, seven were being reviewed. Here’s a quote from one paper: “While fat activism has disrupted many dominant discourses that causally contribute to negative judgments about fat bodies, it has not yet penetrated the realm of competitive bodybuilding...”
|advocates extreme measures to redress the “privilege” of white students. Exhorting college professors to enact forms of “experiential reparations,” the paper suggests telling privileged students to stay silent, or even binding them to the floor in chains.7|
Yet another paper “published in a journal of feminist social work and titled ‘Our Struggle Is My Struggle,’ simply scattered some up-to-date jargon into passages lifted from Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” One paper was accepted by Hypatia, which the New York Times calls “a leading feminist philosophy journal” with “significant standing.”
What a commentary on the system of peer review! What a commentary on academia!
The three scholars who created the hoax concluded,
|Something has gone wrong in the university — especially in certain fields within the humanities.... Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields.|
|1B.||The best explanation of déjà vu may come, not from a psychologist, but from a novelist, E. C. Bentley, author of Trent’s Last Case. Bentley wrote, “There are some places which, seen for the first time, yet seem to strike a chord of recollection. ‘I have been here before,’ we think to ourselves, ‘and this is one of my true homes.’ It is no mystery for those philosophers who hold that all which we shall see, with all which we have seen and are seeing, exists already in an eternal now.” (Trent’s Own Case, by E. C. Bentley and H. Warner Allen, Chapter XV) back|
|2.||The movie Regeneration (1997) deals with Sassoon and Rivers, as well as Wilfred Owen. Regeneration should be included on any list of good movies about World War I. Click here for a one-hour documentary on Wilfred Owen.|
In his later years, Sassoon converted to Catholicism. He also joined the Ghost Club (he was interested in the occult). back
|3.||See James’ talk at Longwood University back|
|4.||The Man From the Train, quoted in BrianLamb interview. back|
|5.||One wonders what James thinks about the Golden State Killer, who has some similarities to The Man From the Train: small stature, athleticism, intelligence, sexual motive, long string of crimes without being caught, enters houses late at night, often through windows, etc. back|
|6.||The Mind of Napoleon: A Selection from His Written and Spoken Words, 168 (page or section?), edited by J. C. Herold, Columbia University Press, 1955 back|
|7.||See the article in The Atlantic. See also an article by the creators of the hoax. back|